The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump
By Ahmad Tohari
Korep, Carmi, and Driver Dalim are three of the many people who frequently visit the garbage dump on the outskirts of town. Dalim is definitely an adult, the driver of one of the yellow garbage trucks, with a crew of two. He is a civil servant, and he likes to take his thick-framed glasses off, and then put back on again. Carmi is really still too young to be called a young lady. Korep is a boy with a scar from a past injury above his eye. Together they are the youngest of the garbage scavengers among the people at the dump.
Driver Dalim is actually a garbage scavenger too. He manages his two assistants so they scavenge the best second-hand goods while the garbage is still on the truck. The instruction is given especially when his truck is transporting the garbage from the mansions on What’s It Called Street. The leather belt that Driver Dalim is wearing is also scavenged. He says it’s made in France and was thrown away by its owner just because it had a small scratch. He also says that the majority of the people who live in those mansions only want to use the best goods, without the smallest mark whatsoever.
When Korep and Carmi arrive at the garbage dump, the stench isn’t so noticeable yet. The sun’s rays are still being blocked by the trees on the eastern side, so the garbage dump isn’t sizzling yet. Later around midday, the garbage dump will be boiling as the stench rises and fills the air. Driver Dalim often reminds Carmi and Korep not to hang around in the middle of the dump. “A lot of scavengers have died from sickness, their lungs diseased,” he says. Who knows why, but Driver Dalim feels the need to remind Carmi and Korep. He himself doesn’t know why he feels close to the two children. Maybe it’s because Korep and Carmi are the two youngest scavengers at the garbage dump.
Dozens of scavengers are already gathered on the southern side. They’re waiting for the garbage truck to arrive. A female scavenger puts a cigarette butt between her lips then moves among the others asking for a light. A hand stretches out towards her mouth. A match lights and smoke starts to unfurl. But the woman then screams. Apparently the hand of the man holding out the match has then tweaked her cheek. She chases the man and pinched his back. They wrestle. All of a sudden there appears a happy spectacle. Korep and Carmi join in the shouting. There are bursts of cheering and boisterous shouting. It becomes so noisy that the sparrows foraging for food on the ground suddenly all fly away together into the air. A dog feels disturbed and disappears quickly behind a garbage excavator, long since broken down and now also garbage.
Driver Dalim wheels in his truck. And in an instant the atmosphere changes. The crowd of garbage scavengers scatters. They run behind until the truck stops. The moment the rubbish is tipped out there erupts a chaotic noisy scene. Dozens of scavengers including Korep and Carmi transform, like a pen full of hungry chickens tossed feed, they struggle, push past each other, shove and nudge past each other. They scramble to scavenge through the garbage for anything at all, except for diapers, pads or dead rats.
Korep finds two half-rotten mangoes. Carmi has a different story. Carmi’s eyes are struck when an object falls from the back of the truck onto her head. It’s the right-hand shoe of a good pair of shoes of a reasonable size. Carmi picks up the shoe straight away. Oh, she has often dreamed of wearing shoes like this. In her dream, Carmi sees her calves are clean and large, and more beautiful because of the shoes. Carmi is really excited She picks through the pile of garbage more excitedly with her hands to find the left shoe. Sweat runs down her forehead and cheeks, but Carmi fails. So she straightened her back looking around; maybe the other shoe is over there. Or maybe it’s been found by another scavenger. Fail again. So Carmi stops and leaves the rubbish heap. She even throws back the three used plastic bottled water glasses she has found.
At the edge of the garbage dump, she tries on the shoe on her right foot. Her heart flutters again because the shoe feels so comfortable on her foot. She takes it off again and cleans it with scrunched up newspaper. After it’s a little cleaner, she puts it back on again. Carmi stands up, turns, and lifts her right foot up so she can inspect carefully how the shoe looks on her foot. She really hopes that tomorrow or whenever the left shoe arrives at this garbage dump. Who knows. Yes, who knows. Can’t anything at all turn up here?
Korep comes over and straight away laughs at what his friend is doing. Carmi disapproves. She is offended but does not want to respond to Korep’s behavior. Or Carmi’s eyes are attracted more to the two mangoes in Korep’s hands. Carmi is relieved that Korep is responsive. What’s more, Korep does not continue to talk about the shoe on her right foot.
“Let’s just eat mangoes. Come on,” Carmi suggests as she places the single lone shoe into a yellow plastic bag. Korep grins, but he too is interested in Carmi’s idea. So Korep and Carmi move to the eastern side where there is a shady tropical almond tree. Korep takes out a small knife he was given by Driver Dalim. He has one mango in the left hand. In one smooth action, the mango is cut open right up to the part that is rotten. Carmi stares at the freshly-cut, bright yellow surface. Carmi salivates but then shudders as two maggots emerge from the surface of the cut. Korep laughs then makes another incision, deeper. This time the rotten part of the mango is completely gone. “Who says half-rotten mangoes aren’t tasty to eat, right?” says Korep as he offers a slice of the mango flesh that is not rotten to Carmi. “Yeah, right?” Carmi just laughs. Korep stares at the row of Carmi’s teeth that are indeed nice to look at.
Every day Carmi carries a yellow plastic sack containing the right shoe. Eventually, everyone finds out that the little girl is still waiting for the left shoe. They feel sorry for her. It’s almost impossible. But to Carmi all garbage scavengers promise they will help her. Driver Dalim even has an amazing idea. He is going to instruct his truck crew of two to go to every house on What’s It Called Street. He’s going to tell both to ask the maids, the drivers, or the gardeners there if they know where the left shoe is which Carmi is waiting for.
But Driver Dalim’s brilliant idea does not need to be carried out. A few days after Carmi discovers the right shoe, Driver Dalim is tricked by his two assistants. At the time he is driving the truck along the highway. Suddenly before his eyes, outside the cabin window, there is a left shoe bobbing up and down. Obviously, the shoe is tied to a long rope with the end being held by his assistants on the back of the truck. Driver Dalim immediately steps on the brake. The tires screech on the surface of the asphalt road. On the back of the truck, his two helpers sway and tumble forward.
Driver Dalim jumps down, immediately takes off his glasses. The truck’s crew of two also climb down. One of them handed the left shoe to Driver Dalim who then smiles broadly. Holding the handle of his glasses, he gives praise to God as many as three times.
“Where did you find it?”
“Yes, in the garbage bin in front of the houses on What’s It Called Street. Forget what number it is.”
“No matter. Where you found the left shoe isn’t important.”
Driver Dalim stops talking because he wants to take off his glasses and put them back one again. Now he rubs his brow, obviously thinking hard. Driver Dalim’s behavior makes his two helpers wonder. What’s he thinking about now? Isn’t there only one thing left, to deliver the left shoe to Carmi?
“Later you give the shoe to Carmi.” This is Driver Dalim’s instruction to the helper who is wearing short pants. The person appointed glances up because he’s a bit surprised.
“It would be better for you to do it, Mr. Dalim.”
“Yes, that’s right. It would be better if it were you, Mr. Dalim,” says the helper wearing trousers, backing up his friend. Driver Dalim sighed then takes of his glasses. Before replacing them again, he speaks in a hushed voice.
“Ah, you don’t know. The thing is, I didn’t have the heart to see Carmi the moment she receives the shoe. Carmi might jump up and down, laugh, or even scream with excitement. Her eyes might sparkle, or on the other hand, she might become teary. Ah, just because of a second-hand shoe taken from a trash can, Carmi’s heart will glow. I wouldn’t have the heart to watch it. It will be very bitter. Do you two have the heart? ”
Without waiting for the answer, Driver Dalim changes his mind. The left shoe will be placed under the tropical almond tree on the eastern side of the garbage dump. Carmi and Korep often rest there in the middle of the day. Everyone agrees so Driver Dalim jumps up into the cabin holding the left shoe. The two helpers climb onto the back and the truck heads off towards the garbage dump.
When the sun is right over the garbage dump, all the scavengers move to the four sides to arrange the results of their scavenging, placing it all into sacks or tying it up with nylon rope. Carmi also moves to the side. She has found dozens of used plastic drinking water glasses, arranging them neatly so that they are easy to carry. In her left hand, there is still a yellow plastic sack containing the right shoe. Along with Korep, who is carrying a bunch of half-rotten mangoes, Carmi moves toward the eastern side headed for the shade of the tropical almond tree.
When the air at the garbage dump is extremely hot and there is no wind, a foul odor spreads out everywhere. The sparrows flock in and the dogs too. Who then is there to hear Carmi laugh out loud then scream hooray over and over again? Her loud laughter feels like an outpouring of overflowing happiness that moves the heart.
Those who hear Carmi’s laughter are the dozens of garbage scavengers in the rubbish dump. And it is only them who are able to truly understand and fully appreciate the laughter of the scavenger girl. So behold, the scavengers stand and smile as they watch Carmi and Korep leave the garbage dump. Carmi laughs, of course, because there is a pair of shoes on her feet. But where could the two garbage scavengers want to go? Every person at the garbage dump knows that Carmi and Korep do not have a home to go to. (*)
The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump (Tawa Gadis Padang Sampah) by Ahmad Tohari was published in the daily newspaper Kompas on 21 Agustus 2016. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2016/08/21/tawa-gadis-padang-sampah/.] Ahmad Tohari was born in Banyumas on 13 June 1948. He now lives in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang, Purwokerto in Central Java province. His most popular work is the novel trilogy The Ronggeng Dancer of Paruk Hamlet (Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk). His collections of short stories include Karyamin’s Smile (Senyum Karyamin), Night Song (Nyanyian Malam), and Eyes Lovely to Behold (Mata yang Enak Dipandang). Other works include the novels Kubah (1982), Di Kaki Bakit Cibalak (1977), Bekisar Merah (1993), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (1995), Belantik (2001), and Orang-orang Proyek (2002). The short story They Spelt The Begging Ban (Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis) was published in Kompas daily on 15 September 2019.
Featured image credit: Life Must Go On! by Ubay Amri Nur.